The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Autumn 2012
File under Plays Set In Boys' Boarding Schools, subcategory Not Involving Paedophile Priests.
The school in Tarell Alvin McCraney's new play is for the sons of upwardly-aspiring (but noticeably absent) African-American parents, but that actually does not make it stand out from others of the genre as much as the playwright might think.
Because alumni donations depend largely on the performance of the school choir (Highly unlikely – alumni would only be interested in the football or, if this were Indiana, basketball team), the student leader of the choir has a lot of power, which he adroitly uses to reward friends, punish foes and manipulate the headmaster.
But this young Machiavel is not the villain of the piece, but the hero/victim. He's gay and quite effeminate, but the real reason some of his schoolmates dislike him is that he's an annoying little twerp, the sort who shows off in class and flaunts his power and sense of superiority.
McCraney's challenge in the play is to make us see that the boy is just using what he's got to get through the paired horrors of school and adolescence, so that he's not really that much different from the other boys with their survival tactics (sports, religion, family connections, music) or, implicitly, from the white boys in similar plays by other playwrights.
School and adolescence are horrors, even if you're not 'different', and some of the nicest touches in McCraney's play lie in the understanding we get that the bully, the toady, the jock and the swot are all just trying to survive, so that we withdraw judgement all around, and just celebrate those who make it and regret those who don't.
If the goal of Dominic Smith's performance as the choir leader is to make us really irritated by the kid and then grudgingly pull back from our dislike, then it's a total success. Similarly, Eric Kofi Abrefa as the boy with family connections somewhat dumbfounded when they stop working and Gary McDonald as the headmaster who first seems weak but then just a good man in the wrong job each begin by losing our sympathy and then regain it.
There are nice performances as well by Khali Best as the most ordinary of the kids and David Burke as the one white teacher, all these successes, along with the play's ability to guide us away from our first impressions, evidence of Dominic Cooke's skilled and sensitive direction.
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